It was hot in the sanctuary. My feet hurt in their high-heeled shoes, and I wondered when the prayer would end so that I could sit down.
It had been three weeks since my conversion to Judaism on 22 Elul 5761 (August 30, 2002), and immediately following it had come the period of the High Holy Days. As I understood it, these were the pivotal, holy moments on the Jewish calendar when the prayers and rituals that form the core of Jewish religious identity encourage us to carefully scrutinize all aspects of life. As a community, we confess our sins, examine our shortcomings, and pray that our acts of teshuva, tefila, and tzedakah (repentance, prayer, and charity) will enable us to live and flourish.
And so I stood on the night of Kol Nidre in our temple, doing my best to follow along in the unfamiliar prayer book–Gates of Repentence–so different from the familiar gray Gates of Prayer that I had followed and studied in the period leading up to my conversion. My limited knowledge of Hebrew did not enable me to untangle the letters on the page, or understand what exactly was taking place during the Al Chet, the recitation of the 44 sins or misdeeds committed by the community as a whole during the past year.
Even though I knew I should have been paying attention to what was taking place on the bimah, I looked around at the hundreds of people in the sanctuary–more than I had ever seen at a Friday night Shabbat service. All around me stood families–young couples and parents with children, older men and women with their children and grandchildren. It looked to me like all the generations at Sinai, standing together.
And I was alone. No parent, no husband, no child stood by my side. I could hear the music of the liturgy swirling through the sanctuary, and the murmurs of prayer rising into the air. All around me people stood in their best fall clothes, with the men in their beautiful white prayer shawls, looking like brothers. I stood with my back starting to hurt and my shoes tightening around my feet, wanting to understand, feeling completely ignorant. I felt as if everyone around me was related to one another, except for me.
When I met Claude, I was sure that things would be different. He was smart, kind, compassionate, well read. He cared deeply about being Jewish, and was active in the Young Leadership group at his local Jewish Community Center. As the son of German-Jewish parents who fled the Nazis in the 1930’s, he loved that I worked at the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City, and seemed fascinated by the fact that I had chosen Judaism. We confessed to one another that we had both uttered a Shehechiyanu (blessing for firsts) after our first date. In short, he was the Jewish partner I had always hoped for.
When the High Holy Days rolled around again, I had expected him to attend the three days of services with me, for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And I looked forward to having the sense that I finally belonged, that I was finally part of a Jewish family.
But during the year that had passed, several issues had come up. First, although he attended Friday night Shabbat services with me from time to time, he was uncomfortable with the Reform liturgy that had changed since he had been active in his temple as a teenager. He missed the prayers he had grown up saying in English, and seemed befuddled by the way our congregation included the matriarchs in our egalitarian prayers. In answer to so many of my questions, his response was, “We did things differently.”
His parents, though always kind and thoughtful in their conversations with me about their Jewish heritage, also had some unexpected opinions. They both took enormous pride in being Jewish and having survived to escape Hitler. They had taken Claude to Israel twice, and brought him up with a very strong sense of what it meant to carry on the legacy of the family members they had lost in the Holocaust.
But they didn’t approve of me wearing a Star of David, or of the mezuzah that I had lovingly affixed to my doorway. Having grown up in a place where being Jewish meant that one lived in fear and terror, they thought it was “safer” not to draw attention to one’s religious identity. Also, since their marriage had dissolved amicably twenty years earlier, they led wonderfully independent, active lives. That meant, however, that the old rituals–celebrating the holidays, being affiliated with a congregation–had also ended.
So when Claude decided not to go to temple with me on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I was hurt, but not surprised. His reasoning? He couldn’t understand the Hebrew, he couldn’t take the day off from work, and besides, his parents didn’t feel it was necessary to go.
I realized that his family’s ambivalence towards my expression of Judaism came from a very real place. But it troubled me that as a Jew-by-choice, I had moved towards Jewish life, while it seemed to me that they, as born Jews, had moved away from it.
And so the High Holy Days came and went. Once again, I attended services alone. I found friends in my congregation to sit with, but at the end of the day there was still emptiness. I felt that everyone else had families and celebrations to go home to, and that there we were, going out for Chinese food or pizza, just like any other night.
So now that the High Holy Days are upon us again, I find myself faced with the same dilemma. But this year, a couple of things have changed.
Over the course of the past year, I became even more active in my congregation. I trained to become a Union for Reform Judaism Outreach Fellow, and work with several people who are in the process of converting to Judaism. This has given me the opportunity to create a community of people who are choosing Judaism, and we get together not only to talk and share, but also to learn and socialize.
Also, I attend our temple’s Saturday morning Torah study, where I have made great friends who have helped me feel completely at home with both congregational life and my choice to embrace Judaism. The unfamiliar faces of a few years ago are now friends who have invited me for holidays, taught me to cook, and shared sacred moments of learning and community.
As for Claude, we are working together to find a level of comfort for both of us to be happy in the Jewish life we are creating. It is by no means easy, but as we work together we try to remember that Judaism was something that brought us together, and it shouldn’t be the thing that tears us apart.
And so, in a couple of weeks, I will probably be on my own at services again. But this time it will be different, because I know that now, instead of thinking that I am completely alone, I have truly become part of the family.